Last month Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed House Bill 3 into law. The legislation authorizes $11.6 billion in school finance expenditures, including $6.5 billion new spending and $5.1 billion in property tax relief. It also codifies FAFSA completion as a requirement for high school graduation, which is a big development for high school seniors in one of the country’s most populous states. The section on FAFSA completion goes into effect starting with the 2021-22 school year.
Policy wonks can find the bill’s full text here, but the part on FAFSA completion is Section 2.015, which begins, “Before graduating from high school, each student must complete and submit a free application for federal student aid (FAFSA) or a Texas application for state financial aid (TASFA).”
There are three waiver options to the requirement: 1) a student's parent or guardian submits a signed form opting the student out, 2) the student opts themselves out if they are 18 or otherwise not a minor, or 3) a school counselor authorizes the student “to decline to complete and submit the financial aid application for good cause, as determined by the school counselor.”
As expected, the legislation also lays out reporting and timeline requirements. It also calls for the creation of an advisory committee to “assist the agency in adopting rules … to implement this section and to develop recommendations for that purpose.” The committee will be comprised of school counselors and administrators as well as “stakeholders to represent the needs of interested students.”
Austin Buchan, CEO of NCAN member College Forward in Austin, Texas, notes he is optimistic about the prospects for increased FAFSA completion as a result of House Bill 3. He also hopes the policy change will spur more investment in resources for public education.
“Boosting FAFSA completion rates must remain a state and national priority in spite of the perpetual lack of funding many of our institutions experience,” he said via email. “It is my ultimate hope that this requirement will add renewed pressure to our state policymakers to increase investments in driving counselor-student ratios to the NACAC-recommended 250:1 [Ed. Note. 2014-15 NACAC data estimated Texas had a 449:1 student-to-counselor ratio]. Tackling college access and success inequities alongside institutional investment challenges are issues we must address in tandem. We cannot wait for states to boost funding to make continued headway on policies we know work for students and families.”
Texas becomes the second state, after Louisiana, to make FAFSA completion a requirement for high school graduation. NCAN has covered the Louisiana policy extensively (see here, here, and here). Louisiana also allows students to opt out of the mandatory FAFSA through a few different pathways; applying for a TOPS scholarship is another way to satisfy the financial aid planning requirement along with opting out via a nonparticipation form or letter or receiving a school system waiver.
The policy change in Louisiana has led to some significant early success. In the 2018-19 FAFSA cycle, the first year in which Louisiana’s mandatory FAFSA policy was in effect, Louisiana led the way in terms of percentage of high school seniors completing and percent increase in completions. A whopping 25.9% more high school seniors (7,778) completed a FAFSA in the 2018-19 cycle than in 2017-18, representing an estimated 77.1% of seniors completing a FAFSA in the state. Louisiana’s percent increase represented over 19% of the entire nation’s increased number of FAFSA completions in that cycle. Those increases have persisted into the 2019-20 FAFSA cycle; an estimated 78.3% of Louisiana seniors from the class of 2019 have completed a FAFSA.
The gains in Louisiana expand beyond FAFSA completion. In May, the Louisiana Department of Education announced that the number of high school graduates immediately enrolling in postsecondary education the following fall climbed to an all-time high. That announcement, in turn, came on the heels of an announcement the week before that the high school class of 2018 posted the highest graduation rate in state history. The high school class of 2018’s graduation rate climbed by 3.2 percentage points to 81.4%. The graduation rate for Black students is above the national average for the first time; these students saw a jump of 5.1 percentage points over 2017 to 78%. Economically disadvantaged students saw their graduation rate rise by nearly 3 percentage points.
Through June 21, an estimated 54.5% of Texas seniors have completed a FAFSA, but year-over-year the number of completions in the state has grown 3.7% (the third-highest improvement rate among states this cycle). Given how large Texas’ population is, a policy that spurs FAFSA completion has the potential to have a significant impact and could potentially ripple into increasing postsecondary enrollment and attainment. It might be ambitious to hope that Texas reaps the same gains as Louisiana did from its mandatory FAFSA policy, but the Lone Star State certainly has room to grow by percentage of seniors completing.